Will freezing my hard drive help with data recovery?

Often we are told that freezing a hard drive after data loss may help recover the files. This is an urban myth which is discussed at length in data recovery forums. Many users claim to have recovered all their data after freezing their hard drive. There are reasons why this may help in certain circumstances, but there are also reasons why this can be very dangerous.

Heat is a major enemy of hard drives and is often exasperated when they fail. The user may well notice that their hard drive is getting very hot. This is normally caused by some sort of friction indie the chassis. Perhaps the bearings on the motor are beginning to seize, or the heads have crashed on the platters. Either way, excessive heat is normally an indication of a mechanical failure.

The idea behind freezing your hard drive is that when the user spins up the hard drive from an extremely cold temperature, the heat build-up will be subdued for longer. Thereby giving the user some extra time to extract their data before total failure. At Data Recovery Specialists we don’t advocate this, but if the user wants to give it a go there are precautions they should take so as not to damage the media even further.

When recovering data we always try to keep the media cool and it is true that the colder the media the better chances of a successful data recovery. A hard drive has a breather hole in the chassis to equalise pressure inside and out.  This breather hole is tiny and is covered by a filter to stop debris entering. However, moisture can easily penetrate and freezers are very wet places! Similarly because the hard drive is filled with air, sudden cooling is likely to create condensation inside the drive. Given that a smoke particle can easily cause a head crash, imagine what a water droplet could do! So if you want to cool your hard drive it is better to use a dry technique and keep the cooling constant throughout the data extraction process. Avoid sudden changes of temperatures.

Whilst it is true that if you can keep a failing hard drive cool, you may be able to run it for a longer period enabling you to retrieve valuable information before it crashes – once the drive has already failed, there is little that can be done by cooling the mechanics. If the hard drive has already crashed, spinning this up regardless of the temperature is going to cause more damage. Listen for indicative signs of a head crash. Constant clicking or scraping will mean that the data will be unrecoverable. These sounds are not to be confused with grinding. This is associated with bearing failure and cooler temperatures can sometimes help.

Jamie Evans of Data Recovery Specialists says “avoid using the freezer to keep your hard drive cool. Try a desktop fan inside or some other type of constant cooling technique. We use specialist mats that we have built ourselves. However the reality is that cooling a hard drive to extract the data is likely to work only in a fraction of cases. You are not addressing the fundamental issues and are more likely to further damage the media”. 

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